South Korea ferry disaster: Investigators probe ferry operators, captain

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, REUTERS) - A joint investigation team of prosecutors and police on Friday raided the office of Cheonghaejin Marine Co., the owner and operator of the South Korea ferry that sank on Wednesday.

Computer files and documents related to the ferry Sewol were procured by some 10 officials at the office in Incheon.

The raid kicked off the probe into allegations that the Sewol took an alternative route on its fateful journey from Incheon to Jeju, and whether human error affected the accident, which took lives of 25 as of 10am on Friday. Some 271 remain unaccounted for.

Sewol, a 6,825-ton ship carrying 475 people, abruptly turned left on the day of the accident. This is thought to have caused the ferry to capsize.

Meanwhile, investigators said on Friday that a junior officer was at the helm of the ferry when it capsized and the captain may have been away from the bridge.

The accident happened in calm, shallow waters and investigators have focused on the role of the ship's 69-year old captain and the actions of the crew as the vessel appeared to have a clean safety record.

"He (the captain) may have been off the bridge.. And the person at the helm at the time was the third officer," Park Jae Eeok, an official investigating the accident, told a press conference in Mokpo, a city close to the port where rescue operations are being conducted.

Rescuers started pumping oxygen into the Sewol ferry on Friday and three cranes were in transit to the accident site and due to set up later in the day in a bid to salvage the vessel.

Parents of missing schoolchildren blamed the ship's captain for the tragedy after he and shipping company officials made emotional apologies for the loss of life.

Witnesses have said that the captain and some of the crew left the vessel while others instructed passengers to remain in place as it sank in just over two hours some 25 km southwest of Jindo, a large South Korean island connected to the mainland.

Theories about the cause of the accident swirled and investigators declined to comment on reports the vessel had turned before it listed to port and capsized.

Coastguard officials have said the investigation was focused on possible crew negligence, problems with cargo stowage and structural defects of the vessel, although the ship appears to have passed all of its safety and insurance checks.

The captain, Lee Joon Seok, faces criminal investigation, which is standard procedure in South Korea. Both Lee and the company that owns the ship have apologised for the loss of life, although neither has admitted responsibility.

Most of those on board were children from a high school in the suburbs of Seoul who were on a field trip to Jeju. Relatives were in mourning overnight in a hospital in the city of Mokpo.

Some of them spoke bitterly of the captain. "How could he tell those young kids to stay there and jump from the sinking ship himself?" said Ham Young Ho, grandfather of 17-year-old Lee Da Woon, one of the dead.

Lee has not made any public statement on whether or why he may have left the vessel before many of the passengers.

South Korea ferry sinking graphic

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.